Flights transiting the Caspian Sea region on Friday, October 16. (photo: flightradar24)
Kazakhstan's Air Astana and other airlines are altering their flight routes over the Caspian Sea after Russian missiles launches from the sea have created an unpredictable security situation.
Earlier this week, Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific announced that it was suspending flights over the Caspian. “In view of the situation in the region Cathay Pacific suspended all flights over Iran and Caspian Sea since last Thursday until further notice,” the airline said in a statement.
But the announcement by Air Astana, the flagship airline of a close Russian ally, is much more significant. The airline announced Friday that it was changing the route of its Almaty-Baku route. "We are now flying by a more northerly route, in the area of Aktau," said company spokesman Tlek Abdrakhimov, local media reported. The route change would add 15 minutes to the flight time. Flights to Tbilisi and Istanbul could be similarly affected, the company said. The rerouting via Aktau suggests that Kazakhstan doesn't see the entire Caspian as a risk, but only the southern part.
On October 9, the European Aviation Safety Agency issued a safety bulletin alerting airlines that there had been "several launches of missiles from warships, located in the Caspian Sea, to Syria on 06 and 07 October 2015. Before reaching Syria, such missiles are necessarily crossing the airspace above Caspian Sea, Iran and Iraq, below flight routes which are used by commercial transport aeroplanes." The agency did not issue a specific recommendation to avoid the sea, however.
Turkmenistan is fuming at suggestions that there has been any unrest along its border with Afghanistan.
The specific target of Ashgabat’s irritation on October 15 was Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who alluded in passing during a meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin to what he see as the mounting threat posed by Islamist extremism coming out of Afghanistan.
“We know about incidents on the border with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. We need to create an ‘Islam against terrorism’ forum,” Nazarbayev was reported to have said by Izvestia newspaper.
The very mention of Turkmenistan was enough to raise the hackles of the Foreign Ministry in Ashgabat.
“The Turkmen side expresses its profound concern and bewilderment in relation to this untrue statement by the president of the Republic of Kazakhstan about the situation on the state border of Turkmenistan,” the ministry said in a statement.
The Turkmen government seems particularly stung that the source of what it characterizes as idle speculation has come from no less a source than an ostensibly cordial neighbor.
“On the basis of the traditionally brotherly relations between our nations, we hope that the Kazakh government may in future adhere to more objective information when assessing the situation,” the Foreign Ministry said.
Ashgabat’s indignation could in turn provoke bewilderment among observers of the unfolding security situation in the Afghan provinces along Turkmenistan’s border.
There can be no doubt Afghanistan is weighing heavy on the mind of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. It was a major topic of conversation on October 8, during his visit to his counterpart in Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov.
Almaty is cleaning up its act as residents have now got a direct line to the mayor via Instagram for reporting problems on the city's streets in real time.
Baurzhan Baybek was appointed in August as a leading light of Kazakhstan's new guard of western-educated apparatchiks. A few months into his term, Baybek’s office brought the administration kicking and screaming into the cyber-age by setting up the akimat_almaty Instagram account.
The page, which has already attracted more than 22,000 followers, encourages residents to post images of problems in the city using the hashtag #akimatalmaty. Concerned citizens have posted pictures of garbage heaps and missing drain covers. In response, the mayor's office has fixed the problems and then posted photos of its work.
Since replacing the old guard mayor, Akhmetzhan Yesimov, Baybek has overseen a more hands-on approach to running Kazakhstan's most populous city. In one notable case, he visited an Almaty children's hospital after pictures of appalling conditions in the clinic were posted on Facebook.
The Instragram account has also been used to publicize city hall initiatives, including the establishment of a dedicated bus lane on the main Abai Avenue and pre-paid tickets for the city's public transport network.
It also harnessed cyberspace to promote a city-wide clean-up day on October 10, which saw students and public sector workers tidying up their places of study and work. The exercise bore echoes of the Soviet-era subbotnik, when 'volunteers' got involved in community service projects on weekends.
Police in Kazakhstan have thrown two activists behind bars on suspicion of fomenting ethnic strife through postings on social networks in which they quoted from an old, unpublished book.
The arrests of Serikzhan Mambetalin and Yermek Narymbayev – who are vocal online critics of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s rule, but wield little on-the-ground influence to rally support against it – are symptomatic of the extent to which the authorities in Kazakhstan go to crush even limited, or virtual, dissent.
The two were arrested on October 12 on the basis of allegations of “their dissemination on social networks of information containing clear signs of fomenting ethnic strife, [and] insults against ethnic honor and dignity,” the Almaty police department said in a statement put out the following day.
They are being investigated under a broad charge covering incitement to social, ethnic, tribal or religious strife. The offense is punishable with a fine or up to 12 years in jail.
This is one of the charges under which opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov was jailed in 2012 for seven and a half years after being found guilty of fomenting social strife that prosecutors argued led to fatal unrest in the town of Zhanaozen.
Police did not further specify the nature of the suspicions against the two activists, but Mambetalin offered a clue before his arrest. Writing on his Facebook page two days earlier, he said they were under attack for citing the writings of Murat Telibekov, another activist who is known for his anti-regime views.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev meets with Chinese defense minister Chang Wanquan in Astana. (photo: akorda.kz)
China is giving new military aid to Kazakhstan and the two countries are planning joint special forces training, as Beijing slowly but steadily increases its military presence in Central Asia.
Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan visited Astana on Monday and met with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Kazakhstani defense officials. There, Chang announced that China was donating some military trucks to Kazakhstan, according to Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense.
Especially intriguing was the discussion of special forces training: "Training and exchange of experience in the sphere of combating asymmetric threats (training special forces units) is an important aspect of cooperation," the MoD announced. ("Asymmetric threats" is a military euphemism for unconventional warfare like terrorism and guerrillas.) "Kazakhstan is interested in organizing joint events on mountain training, training of military swimmers, actions in urban environments for special forces. In the near future joint tactical antiterror exercises are planned on the territory of China and Kazakhstan."
Kazakhstan has carried out these kinds of training exercises before with China, but it's almost always been within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. These exercises appear to be purely bilateral.
The press release from Nazarbayev's office announced that ties with China are "at a new level of cooperation," and Chang laid on the praise for the president: "We consider you to be a great politician and strategist. You have made a great contribution to the formation and development of Kazakhstan, enjoying enormous authority among the population."
Screenshot of Russian MoD-produced video of strikes against Syrian targets fired from ships on the Caspian Sea.
Russian cruise missiles launched from ships on the Caspian Sea have struck targets inside Syria, adding a dramatic exclamation to what had been a slow, quiet militarization of the sea.
The strikes took place Monday and Tuesday and were announced with great fanfare on Wednesday, including comments from Russian President Vladimir Putin and a slickly produced video detailing the strike.
In total, 26 missiles were fired against 11 targets inside Syria from four ships from Russia's Caspian Flotilla. The 3M14 Kalibr missiles were used in combat for the first time, Russian defense industry sources told news site Lenta.ru. They flew over Iranian and Iraqi airspace en route to Syria, and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu emphasized that Russia had gotten permission beforehand from those "partners."
Putin's comments praised the soldiers and military staff involved the strikes, but also Russia's defense industry. "The fact that these strikes were carried out using high-precision weapons launched from the Caspian Sea’s waters, around 1,500 kilometres away, and all of the planned targets were destroyed is evidence of our defence industry’s good preparation," Putin said. The strikes, and the large amount of publicity they were given, likely served two interests: demonstrating the Russian military's ability to strike from a long distance, and demonstrating the ability of Russian weaponry -- a key element in Russia's strategy for economic recovery -- to carry out such strikes.
Not content to sit back and let the men grab all the European football glory, Kazakhstan's top women's team has made its mark by holding Spain's Barcelona to a draw in the knockout stage of the UEFA Women's Champions League.
Last week, FC Astana made history by becoming the first team from Kazakhstan to gain a point in the Champions League group stage with a 2-2 draw with Turkey's Galatasaray, but the women's team BIIT-Kazygurt, based in Shymkent, southern Kazakhstan, is no stranger to European competition.
The team has been a regular in the knockout stages of the Women's Champions League since the competition was founded in 2009, but has never progressed beyond the round of 32 teams.
BIIK-Kazygurt fielded a cosmopolitan line-up against Barcelona with the teams defensive core hailing from Kazakhstan, and the rest of the team from the United States, Nigeria, Norway, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Barcelona took the lead after 57 minutes before BIIK-Kazygurt's Norwegian star Lisa-Marie Woods got the equaliser after 82 minutes.
Kazakhstan has had a women's football league since 2004, with BIIK-Kazygurt, then based in the commercial capital Almaty and known as Alma-KTZh, a founder member. The team relocated to Shymkent in 2010.
The league now consists of five teams – two from Shymkent, and one apiece from Almaty, Kokshetau and Aktobe. BIIK-Kazygurt were the runaway winners of this years league with a 100 percent record. Next week, the team makes the 4,300-mile trip to Spain for the return leg as it vies with FC Astana to bring European football glory to Kazakhstan.
Legislation approved last month by Kazakhstan’s parliament is creating onerous rules on how nongovernmental organizations are funded and sparking alarm among activists of a fresh crackdown on civil society.
Critics of the bill have drawn comparisons to a 2012 law adopted in Russia that requires foreign-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents,” a label with toxic Cold War-era associations.
Although the wording of the bill in Kazakhstan is different, many fear the results may be similar.
The law will grant the government “ideological control over NGOs,” activist Amangeldy Shormanbayev warned on October 6.
Over 60 NGOs have signed an appeal for President Nursultan Nazarbayev to veto the bill, which was approved by the lower house of parliament on September 23 and is now awaiting a vote in the Senate.
The petition warns that “if this draft law is adopted, it will seriously restrict human rights,” including the rights to freedom of speech, conscience and association.
Since the constitution guarantees those rights, the law is anti-constitutional and also breaches international human rights commitments to which Astana subscribes, the appeal said.
The law will establish a single state operator through which funding for NGOs must be channeled. Activists believe that will give the state a veto over which NGOs receive funding, and for what kind of activities.
The law “contradicts the principles of open civil society, because NGOs cannot be 100 percent dependent on the state,” Shormanbayev, a representative from the International Legal Initiative, a nongovernmental foundation offering legal advice, told a news conference in Almaty on October 6.
In a noteworthy backtrack, education authorities in Kazakhstan have ordered a revision of school textbooks to ensure that they do not show Crimea as a part of Russia.
Mektep, the publishing house that creates history and geography textbooks used in schools in Kazakhstan, sparked a diplomatic row in September when it appeared to endorse the annexation of the peninsula by Russia.
But the Education Ministry said in a painfully worded press release on September 30 that Mektep had erred in how it assembled its facts.
“It was noted that the authors did not apply the entire range of factuality in objectively composing the given material,” the statement said, according to an Interfax report. “The publisher and authors did not fully reflect the position of Kazakhstan or that of the international community in its treatment of the Crimea issue.”
It remains to be seen how the Mektep textbooks will now endeavor to characterize the status of Crimea.
When it issued its protest over the books on September 25, Ukraine’s embassy to Kazakhstan was clear.
The suggestion that Crimea should be part of Russia “contradicts the position of the international community and the leadership of the Republic of Kazakhstan, which has more than once stated its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” the embassy said in its statement.
Kazakhstan's celebrations over FC Astana gaining its first Champions League point were cut short by news that its cycling superstar Alexandre Vinokourov could face charges of race-fixing in Belgium.
A Belgian prosecutor has ruled that Vinokourov should stand trial along with Russian rider Alexandr Kolobnev on charges that the two colluded to fix the result of Belgium's Liege-Bastogne-Liege one-day classic in 2010. Vinokourov allegedly paid Kolobnev around $225,000 to let him win the race, Sky Sports reported.
If convicted, both riders could face between six months and three years in jail and fines of between $330,000 and $660,000. Vinokourov and Kolobnev have contested the decision on the basis that the evidence is too flimsy to convict them. The decision whether to bring the case to court will be made by October 15.
The news broke just after FC Astana, playing its first ever home fixture in the Champions League group stages, fought back against Turkish powerhouse Galatasaray to earn a 2-2 draw. The Turkish side scored two own goals to Astana's one in a bizarre match.
FC Astana, along with cycling's Pro Team Astana is part of Kazakhstan's flagship sports project, Astana Presidential Sports Club, which oversees football, cycling and ice hockey teams, as well as ice skaters and boxers. The club is bankrolled by Samruk-Kazyna, Kazakhstan's sovereign wealth fund.